Employer branders love to talk about the amazing impacts of investing in your employer brand. From attracting more applicants and higher offer acceptance rates to increasing talent retention and supporting various marketing and corporate brand efforts, it might feel like being sold some magic beans.
Their zeal surrounding employer brands and employer value propositions (EVPs) assume the delivery of a strong and effective brand. In many cases–perhaps even most cases–that brand doesn’t yield expected results. Not because branding doesn’t work, but because the brand itself wasn’t built.
What is a “bad brand”?
Brands are inherently abstract things, so we need to start by defining what a “bad brand” looks like.
First, a bad brand doesn’t create or highlight differentiation. Talent acquisition is rife with examples of boringly pleasant brands and taglines that could be applied to literally hundreds of thousands of other companies without issue. And if it doesn’t help someone choose their future employer, what good is the brand?
Second, a bad brand is designed to appeal to effectively everyone. No company, no matter how big, needs to appeal to more than 1% of the talent pool. But bad brands are focused on delivering platitudes and hiding anything that might cause someone to balk, even if that person would never be a quality hire.
Finally, a bad brand doesn’t align with how staff see the company. Whether it is overly rosy, overly aspirational, or just a flat-out spin job, a bad employer brand seems to have no relation to the reality that current employees see and feel every single day. This isn’t about being trendily “authentic” but rather not creating a “bait and switch” situation where future employees never actually get the value promised.
What causes bad branding?
In employer branding, there are two main sources of bad branding.
1. Brand “buyers” see platitudes as a win. Human resources (HR) and talent acquisition (TA) leadership often think of recruiting as talking up how “great” the company is. They rarely think about how their company’s positioning will appeal to one audience and push away another, so they are very comfortable accepting blandly positive ideas as their new brand.
2. Leadership forces the brand to be overly positive. Leaders are beset by so much pushback, competition, and bad news in the marketplace, they often see the employer brand as the place where they can double down on how great the company is. As such, they push emerging employer brands that tell a complete story into those that read like glossy press releases.
So, what are the costs of building and launching a bad brand?
When calculating the cost of an ineffectual employer brand, we have to start with the cost of development. For most companies, that number starts at mid-five figures, but when you add in the time of stakeholders and TA staff, materials developed (add up the costs of all those videos!), and the opportunity costs from the project, for many companies six figures is a safe bet.
The problem with a bad brand is that in the process of development, it often feels like everything is aligned. An overly-positive brand makes people feel good, like a sugar high. It’s hard to object to saying more positives. The real danger becomes clear upon launch when the brand doesn’t create the differentiation, and the sugar hangover hits.
Suddenly, what looked like a home run feels more like a swing and miss.
Cost of lost candidates
A good brand makes it crystal clear to candidates why they should engage. They understand the value you propose (hence, employer value proposition) and decide it is worth their attention and time.
You might assume a bad brand that does not make that differentiated value clear won’t attract candidates, but that’s only partially true. A brand that can’t stop telling people how great it is will attract people who think that’s all a company needs to be. An “all good news, all the time” brand won’t attract great talent and will also make finding the best talent from available sources much harder.
The applicant tracking system will overflow with middling talent, overwhelming recruiters and hiring managers and making their task of selecting great options exponentially harder. Because when you make the haystack bigger without adding needles, it simply becomes harder to find them.
Cost of frayed relationships with marketing, talent acquisition, and hiring managers
A strong employer brand is like the marriage vows between marketing and recruiting, allowing both sides to better understand the other and work together to create a compelling and valuable recruiting message that serves everyone.
But because a bad brand doesn’t actually solve any problems, it brings the two parties together in name only. There is no shared understanding, objective, or process. The two sides continue to work in their usual manner, but with new lingering resentment based on the assumption that it was the other party who didn’t hold up their end of the contract.
Loss of trust with recruiters
Recruiters are often some of the busiest people in a company. The process of reviewing applications and corresponding with prospects on the way, talking to hiring managers about this prospect or that, and scheduling interviews takes well more than an 8-hour day. Good recruiters know people are often more willing to talk after work hours, so they are InMailing people while watching Netflix at night.
An employer brand is a burden on recruiters. It asks them to change their established processes with the promise of higher quality candidates and more engagement with talent.
The cost of implementing a bad brand means the recruiter does all the work for no return (or worse). After going through a bad brand process, the likelihood of them following the next change initiative drops significantly, leaving you with a recruiting team that won’t adapt to the times.
Higher reliance on ads and agencies
One of the biggest driving factors in employer branding is the anticipation of saving money by having to run fewer ads, relying on agencies less, and having more candidates accept their offers. In the deck your employer brand partner used to sell leadership, there was at least one slide that calculated the anticipated savings year over year once the brand was in place.
Did it actually materialize?
If it didn’t, you’ll need to make up the shortfall in unrealized candidates through transactional spending on ads and agencies. And these expenses are significant.
A strong brand creates a kind of gravitational pull, keeping employees who, having seen the brand idea manifested day in and day out, are less inclined to talk to recruiters and hear other companies’ pitches. That regular proof is like a vaccine against other recruiters’ vague, rosy claims.
But a bad brand doesn’t do that. It muddies the water, making it not just unclear why people should join, but also why they should stay. Ironically, a bad brand tells employees that no one is saying much of value, so jumping ship for inexact claims and promises of higher rewards actually makes a lot of sense.
So, what is the cost of higher attrition, especially when the defense against it has somehow gotten weaker?
Value of lost top talent
This is the largest and hardest-to-calculate cost.
Somewhere out there are a handful of people who will act like gasoline poured on the flame of your business. They bring innovative approaches to product, development, sales, and operations that will give your company what it needs to put distance between it and the rest of the industry.
These talents aren’t diamonds in the rough. They are talented people who know their value and thus have choices about where to work.
A bad brand pushes them away because it doesn’t offer the opportunity to make any kind of decision about your company. It doesn’t give a complete picture of what it’s like to work there. Consequently, these catalyst candidates will choose the companies that make that offering clear.
You’ll never even know whether the all-stars looked at or even considered your company. Meanwhile, your company will continue to attract the same mid-level talent that your hiring managers swallow while wondering why they can’t interview the really great folks.
The cost of an employer brand can be measured in lost time, lost money, lost trust, and lost opportunities. These are the kinds of costs that aren’t obvious but become clear drains on the company overall, making them the kinds of costs your company simply can’t afford to pay.
Cover source: Desertsands